Earlier today there was some discussion about Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs negotiations being pretty much at a standstill due to Smith believing he should be paid upwards of $18 million a season. This figure should come as no surprise to those who listen to the podcast or follow my Twitter feed as I’ve mentioned that number many times in the past. Smith was basically considered a bust for the first six or seven years or his career and little more than a game manager at his best, but the marketplace puts a premium on QB play and there is little mid tier market that exists at the position anymore.
It was not that long ago that the QB market was kind of filled with a few tiers of players. At the top tier you had Drew Brees and Peyton Manning making around $20 million. Following that grouping was Matt Schaub and Mike Vick in the $16 million range. A step down from there were players like Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Mark Sanchez in the $13 million range. In between it all you had the outdated contracts or Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger that had set the market a few years back.
Slowly that mid tier of Vick and Schaub through Sanchez evaporated. The new NFL has essentially divided the QB position into high paid veterans and rookies. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco all make over $20 million a season. The low floor was set when Tony Romo, a statistical gem but with a lack of success, made $18 million a season in a new contract signed in 2013. Matt Stafford, a former number 1 overall pick, signed for about $17.7 million. From there you drop all the way down to Smith at $9.3 million and Palmer at $8 million to get a recent reference point (Tom Brady took unique $11.4 million a year deal that won’t be applicable to anyone else). After that it becomes rookie ball and hanger ons.
My assumption last season was that Jay Cutler of the Bears would be the player to re-define that mid tier contract in the $15-$16 million range. Cutler was a classic player to fit that mold. He was talented and had that draft pedigree but there were flaws which never saw the talent turn into stats or incredibly productive team performance. He was the type of player a contending team would never give up on, but probably not the type of player you build around.
Somehow he ended up surpassing Romo in annual value at $18.1 million a season. That should have sent shockwaves around front offices in the NFL because it signaled that talented veterans were going to get paid at a very high level moving forward. It opened the door for Smith, who had been a bargain the last two seasons, to really reach for the stars in contract talks.
Here are how Romo, Cutler, and Smith stack up in some key categories. Please note that these stats are three year averages and are for the seasons leading up to the extension, meaning 2010-2012 for Romo and 2011-2013 for the other two.
Outside of age and record it is difficult to see any manner in which Cutler compared favorably to Romo. In fact he was outdistanced by Romo in every other category. Smith and Cutler are certainly comparable players. Cutler is going to throw for more yards but that comes with a far higher risk than Smith, who is not nearly as turnover prone. That probably intensifies the game manager label for Smith, but you are also paying for more games when you get Smith. Though the Bears did not sign a pricey backup for Cutler, most teams would consider signing a higher priced backup due to the injury history. Dallas did that with Kyle Orton in the event Romo had another bad injury. Smith has been durable.
Even moreso than traditional numbers, these categories are dominated by Romo. What Cutler did besides being younger than Romo to warrant a similar contract is hard to imagine. In these categories Smith would be considered a bit superior to Cutler. Cutler’s main strength is that he throws the ball further down the field than Smith. The YAC is not as strong for Cutler, but he would seem more reliable in getting yards without help compared to the others.
Regardless of how you look at the numbers I think it is clear that Smith has a strong argument to match or slightly exceed Cutler’s salary. Smith is one year younger and in the last three seasons been much more successful. While some of Smith’s wins are attributed to being on an excellent team in San Francisco he should benefit greatly from his trade to Kansas City where the team went from worst in the NFL to a double digit win team with Smith at QB. It has marked three straight years that his teams have gone to the playoffs.
Kansas City’s salary cap situation may make things difficult if Smith signs a Cutler size contract. Their salary cap is incredibly tight and it may require a contract with heavy prorated bonus money. The Bears signed Cutler on terms they wanted. The Chiefs probably can not do that with Smith. If they are not sold on Smith at these numbers then its best to hold off before doing a contract even if, in the long run, it makes the cap numbers more difficult to manage. If they still believe that Smith is a game manager that has been lucky by circumstance the last few years then they are better off waiting on a new contract. If things go poorly for him this year they will reap the benefits down the line. This was one of the mistakes Houston made when they extended Schaub a season too early only to regret the decision before the ink even dried on the contract.
Realistically it is hard to believe that Smith could increase his value that much more by winning a championship. The current low value player who received the salary boost from a Super Bowl win is Joe Flacco at $20.1 million. Flacco was 28 when he signed his contract, three years younger than Smith will be if his contract expires. So you are not looking at a difference of $4-5 million per year if he wins as was the case with Flacco.
The bigger risk for the Chiefs in waiting is what happens with the turnover from the 2004 QB draft class, all of whom are in situations that likely will require extensions by the 2015 season. Manning, Roethlisberger, and Rivers are all playing on contracts that really have no valid place in the market. They only have one more year of NFL experience than Smith and could be comparison points for him. If they all end up over $20 million it could push the value for Smith, even if he has a similar season as he had in 2013. That could also benefit the Chiefs if those contracts do not surpass the $20 million barrier and barely surpass the Cutler contract. Manning and Roethlisberger have more championships and ties to their cities while Rivers is going to be a much stronger statistical performer than Smith. Having a strong understanding of where those contracts could be headed might be important in the Chiefs decision making process.
But the $18 million asking price is not outlandish based on what Smith has done the last few seasons. It’s a valid asking price given the Cutler contract and will likely be around what Smith earns from the Chiefs or another team in the NFL. We’ll see how it plays out over the summer.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.